Belarus Activist Gets 2 1/2 Years

MINSK -- A court in Belarus has jailed a business activist for 2 1/2 years for assaulting a prison guard, the second such sentence in as many days imposed on opposition figures, an opposition leader said Thursday.

Authorities were attempting to intimidate rights advocates with the jailing Wednesday evening of Sergei Parsyukevich, a participant in January protests by small business owners, opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich said.

Parsyukevich was one of dozens of protesters detained after the 3,000-strong rally, and he was jailed for 15 days on public order charges, Milinkevich said. Parsyukevich was later convicted of assaulting a guard, he said.

"This is the authorities' way of trying to intimidate civil society," said Milinkevich.

Another prominent activist in the movement, Andrei Kim, was jailed for 1 1/2 years Tuesday for attacking a policeman at a protest. Kim's sentence prompted U.S. and EU denunciations.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko had been particularly harsh in criticizing the rallies by the entrepreneurs, including market stallholders, who complain new regulations make it difficult for them to operate.

Opposition leaders say the two trials signaled an end to what they described as a "relative thaw" in the country of 10 million.

Lukashenko, long accused by the United States and European Union of human rights abuses, had in recent months been trying to improve relations with the West after the former Soviet state quarreled with Russia last year over energy prices.

Belarus had especially sought to improve ties in the past year with the EU. It remains locked in a diplomatic row with Washington over human rights and sanctions. The U.S. ambassador left Minsk last month, and Belarus wants the U.S. to cut its embassy staff from 17 to five.